Creating A Writing Style Sheet

As mentioned in last week’s blog post, I’ve spent most of this year in editing hell, working through an MS that has been through re-writes, new beta readers, and a total show, don’t tell overhaul.

As my edits for that MS wound down, I returned to the next MS in the series (book two), which I hadn’t looked at for a few months. It’s up to draft five and has been looked over by a handful of betas, most of who pointed out my overuse of the word “that.”

When you face 200 odd pages that need work, you wonder if it’ll be easier to procrastinate and/or consider a different career/hobby/calling.

But not editing the MS to the best of your ability when you’ve spent so long putting words on those 200 pages isn’t why you started this, right? (right?). So, instead, you look for helpful editing tips, and one of the best I’ve come across is creating a writing style sheet.

What Is A Style Sheet?

A style sheet is used by editors to set the rules for style, usage, and grammar within a manuscript.

Why Every Writer Needs One

Creating a style sheet for your own writing voice will give you that same consistency, control, and help make self-editing easier. It will even deliver a cleaner MS to a professional editor, which can cut down on editing fees.

How To Create A Style Sheet

It’s as simple as opening a new document in your writing program of choice, or a notebook with plenty of blank pages if you’re old school.

To start, decide on your language. If you’re using English, it’ll be American English or British English. I’m Australian, but I set and plan to submit my YA series in the US, so I write in American English (I also spent nine years writing beauty content for an American-based website, so it’s just habit at this point).

The pros of deciding on your language will also help you set and check for varied spellings of common words. After all, you can’t have your MC munching on a donut in chapter one and then buying more doughnuts in chapter five. Sure it’s the same word and it won’t confuse anyone, but it looks unprofessional to have the two different spellings.

After that, choose an editing pass where you will read the MS from start to finish, and make your notes as you work through each sentence.

What To Include In Your Style Sheet

References

Note what source you’ve been using as your dictionary or grammar guide and add links if they’re online. I use Merriam Webster as my go-to dictionary. By always using the same dictionary and grammar guide, you’ll cut down on potential mistakes.

The Basics

The bare essentials of a style sheet.

Spelling

This is for the common words spelled correctly, but with multiple spelling options, such as tee shirt versus t-shirt or seatbelt versus seat belt. You can also include words you mistype with shocking frequency, such as from instead of form.

Noting these down on your style sheet will remind you to check for the kind of mistakes that won’t be flagged by a spell check program.

Capitals

Seasons, titles, names, streets, days of the week, nationalities, and holidays. Do all of these need capitals? Yes? No? Maybe?

It’s okay if you don’t know. It’s okay if you do know. It’s okay if you did know and now you’ve forgotten because writing a 100,000-word novel has turned your brain to mush. Editing is the time to research and question everything you thought you knew about capitalization. But, if you don’t want to disappear down that Internet rabbit hole every single time you finish a draft, put it into your style sheet for easy reference instead.

Bonus tip: start at this rabbit hole – Grammarly: capitalization rules

Phrases/Idioms

If your WIP makes use of well-known phrases, look them up and record them so you can make sure they’re correct. No one wants an editor, agent, or publisher passing because that “holier-than-now” phrase you used but didn‘t check because it sounded “right” is actually “holier-than-thou.”

It’s also a good idea to make sure common phrases are regionally correct for where your story’s set. In Australia, we say “Death warmed up” but in the US they say “Death warmed over, which I now know thanks to one of my awesome beta readers.

Numbers

Are you going to spell out numbers (eighty)? Use actual numbers (80)? Or subscribe to the rule that anything from zero to one hundred should be written, and everything above that expressed as numbers? Whatever your choice, add it to your style sheet and keep it consistent.

Same rules apply for writing the time. Decide if you’re going with “a.m./p.m” or “am/pm” or “7 pm” instead of 7:00 pm.”

Bonus rabbit hole: Grammarly: when to spell out numbers

Next Level Style Sheet

Same as the basic but also includes some formatting.

Italics

Do you want to use italics for internal thoughts? Backstory? Dream sequences? A story within a story section? Decide what gets italicized and leave a note for your future self.

Em Dashes

Are typically used without spaces either side, but some writing mediums like newspapers add a space. Decide if you’re Team Space or not and add it to your style sheet.

Indenting Paragraphs

Some writers start each chapter with the opening line indented, some don’t. State your preference in your style sheet.

Quotation/Speech Marks

Curly? Straight? No quotes? The option is yours to make. Just keep it consistent (and please re-consider using none, it’s so confusing).

Also, jot down if you’re putting the period or comma inside the quote marks (American English), or outside (British English). And that single quotes should be used to quote a quote within quotation marks. Examples can be found here if that confused you!

Specific Style Sheet

This one relates to just your book/s and can be used alongside the other style sheets.

Character Names/Nicknames

Once you’ve reached the end of your book, you’ve probably written your character names so many times you can spell them better than your own. But I bet during the intense writing process you didn’t notice for half of chapter eight you spelled “Hayden” as “Haiden.” Same goes for when you changed Mack’s name to Jack somewhere in the middle but forgot about amending it in the first ten chapters. List every character name in your style sheet, including nicknames, and check they’re correct throughout your entire MS.

Places/Locations

Recording guidelines for where things are located in your fictional world, especially in made-up places, will help stop issues such as mentioning the local diner is at the edge of town in the first chapter, but having the characters visit it in the middle of town during the final chapter.

Made Up/Setting Specific Spellings

If you’ve made up most of your fictional world, keep track of the unique spellings and the use of alternative spellings (i.e Magick versus Magic) with your style sheet.

Miscellaneous Formatting

If you open your chapter in a different year (2050) or place (The Badlands), or you like to list a character name at the start of your chapters so the reader knows whose head they’re in, put it in your style sheet. Include a note about centering, right justifying, or italicizing that text.

A style sheet can be as detailed or as simple as you want to make it. You don’t even have to use one if you think it’s too much work. Many writers finish books without them.

If you like the idea, but feel overwhelmed, create a style sheet that only lists what you know will help you edit. Or you can adopt common industry style sheets, such as The Chicago Manual of Style.

The point of a style guide is to make the job of editing easier, to keep your novel consistent, and to provide you with a quick reference without having to comb your whole novel every time you need to check one little thing. If that sounds like something you need in your writing life, put your style sheets together and use them to create a faster exit from editing hell. You’ve got lots of other books to write.

— K.M. Allan

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42 thoughts on “Creating A Writing Style Sheet

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    1. Really? Not sure how my book-specific style sheet will help you or make any sense 😅. My general one is the same as what’s listed here, a Scrivener file broken up into individual notes under these headings with my notes underneath 😊.

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      1. Hi again. Books are what I do (published since 1990). Still working at it, bit by bit (or, word by word). Sure, I’d love to have a copy to help bring my thoughts together. If you want to share, my email is: emhelms63@yahoo.com
        Question: How do you like Scrivener? How difficult (or easy) is it to learn, at least the basics to get a writer through the novel process? Really curious. I’ve always been a “pantster.” Thanks! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Okay, Michael. I’ll send you a copy you can fill in for yourself 😊. I do like Scrivener. I’m a pantser too, so I don’t really use it to outline. I found it easy to use because I use the most basic functions, which is to divide my book up into scenes, and to compile the book into different formats (ebook, word doc, PDF etc). It has other functions, which I’m sure are great and handy, but I haven’t gotten around to learning them yet. It also gives you stats on your WIP, like word count, page count, and allows you to set word count goals for writing sessions, which I also find handy. I’m pretty sure they offer a free 30 day trial if you want to give it a go. Just google Scrivener.

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  1. This is such an awesome post! Great advice, I am so, so going to start using style sheets for my editing. Thank you for being so in depth with it all, and making it so clear. Such valuable advice as always ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I spent the past week revising and editing a first draft – it was a style edit, mostly, and I didn’t know it! I don’t use a sheet, but as I read through your post, kept thinking ‘yeah, that’s what I looked for.’ and ‘yup, I was def doing this.’ which is funny, because I always assume I’m doing everything wrong, but then realise I am not, only these are things that tend to come naturally to me and I hadn’t even considered they might have a name eheheh. It’s every other kind of edit that I seem to be failing, not the style edits lol

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the idea of making one of these lists. Trying to remember all of the editing parts can become overwhelming. And I love that you’ve put links in to help, thanks.
    Your writing is spot on for the American market, I assumed you lived there. I need to up my game and learn from you. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rainy 😊. I’ll do anything to make editing easier, and having a style sheet works for me, and I hope it works for you too. I’m glad to hear my years of watching American TV and movies has paid off 😅.

      Liked by 1 person

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